The Problem With Principles


It’s been a three-year journey from conception to launch for my new book Editing Jesus (releasing June 4). Along the long and winding editorial path to the final published version, one chapter in the book generated more blowback than any other—it’s called “The Problem With Principles.” The force behind all the outside consternation surrounding this chapter is its premise—that the church’s fixation on “understanding the biblical principle and applying it to your life” as a formation strategy is a weak substitute for the “way of Jesus” modeled in the gospels. To many, this represents a frontal assault on the most commonly embraced discipling standard in the church. What I’ve learned is that merely questioning this approach (or undermining it, as I do in the book) is akin to ministry heresy. 

I thought it might be interesting to invite you into this charged conversation prior to the book coming out. So, here is an excerpt from the beginning section of the chapter—it lays the groundwork for what follows, which is a dismantling of the church’s common template for faith formation and a re-embracing of the way of Jesus. Here is the excerpt…

‘We Think Profession Is Pleasing to God’
One night, I sat with a small gathering of invited Christian leaders as theologian and USC professor of philosophy Dr. Dallas Willard targeted the fallacies behind “following biblical principles” as a path to transformation—the most common and widely accepted discipleship strategy in the church:

“Researchers reveal a dismal picture of the ordinary Christian. [They] tend to identify salvation as forgiveness of sins through means of correct doctrine—biblical principles. But is our standard for salvation based on biblical principles or intimacy with God? Go back to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:20. Our righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees, or we won’t enter the kingdom of heaven—now, not later. If we try to live our life by rules, we’ll fail. We have a view of belief that isn’t really belief—it is profession of principles. We think profession is pleasing to God. But the reason the Pharisees are driven to hypocrisy is because they’re obsessed with doing the right thing. It’s all about doing.”

Willard is pointing out a kind of home-blindness embedded in the church’s conventional strategies for encouraging Christian maturity. To understand those strategies, we can study commonalities in the most popular sermon topics among U.S. pastors—when we do, we discover that a “biblical principles” approach to transformation dominates. A principle is a “proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief.” And a biblical principle is a proposition drawn from Scripture that we’re to understand, embrace, and then “apply to our life.” On the ministry-resourcing site Sermon Search, four of the seven most-searched sermon topics target “propositional” principles—“life change,” “habits,” “tithing,” and “character- based.” And the remaining three topics—“book-of-the-Bible studies,” “theology,” and “seasonal”—offer easy on-ramps into principle-focused teaching.

Pastors working from this common menu of sermon topics are shaping their congregants’ norms and expectations for spiritual growth. Over the course of a long sojourn in the church, I’ve been involved in Methodist, Evangelical Covenant, Charismatic, Presbyterian, Catholic, Southern Baptist, Anglican, Lutheran, Nazarene, and Assemblies of God churches. And while it’s not a careful data analysis of sermon themes, I can sum up my five decades of church teaching on faith-growth simply: The church wants me to believe that mastering biblical principles will lead to maturity. I can expect to be transformed when I understand biblical principles and apply them to my life.

Why Investing Our Hope In Principles Is So Flawed
So, what’s the problem with this understand-and-apply formula? As Willard suggests, when we invest our hope in principles to transform our lives, we have subtly shifted the focus to our own willpower and away from an abiding dependence on Jesus. Think about your experience in your church’s worship service, then try this personal experiment:

  1. Ask yourself what last Sunday’s sermon was about—your “understanding” of it.
  2. Now ask yourself what you were supposed to “apply” from that sermon.
  3. Now ask yourself if you’ve applied any of that.

For almost all of us, this simple experiment yields discouraging results. Why? Because understand-and-apply as a formation strategy is fatally flawed. It leads us to assume that mere human understanding leads to growth, and that our growth in Christ is dependent on our ability or willingness to apply truth to our lives. On both counts we human beings have a dismal track record. Even Satan understands biblical truth, for ex- ample, but mere understanding has not transformed him. In contrast to this understand-and-apply strategy, Jesus promotes and models an entirely different path to transformation.

Author, pastor, and theologian Ray Ortlund spotlights the core teaching of Jesus on transformation: “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me” (John 15:4). Then Ortlund offers this: “Why did Jesus say this? Because our default is to do Christianity without Him. So He told us plainly how it really works.”

No More Trying Harder to Be Better
By setting our sights on mastering biblical principles, embracing the understand-and-apply mindset for “personal transformation,” we are unconsciously “trying to do Christianity without Him” by investing ourselves in try-harder-to-do-better mechanics, as Ortlund points out. When we do, we edit out Jesus’ central mission in our life—the restoration of relational intimacy with the Trinity. Jesus didn’t come to help us perform better in life; He came to reestablish a bride/bridegroom relationship with His beloveds. As intimacy is restored we gain access to the life of Jesus, which naturally produces a bumper-crop of fruit in our life. This is the fruit that understanding and applying our principles promises to produce, but can’t apart from a source of strength that is far beyond our own…

A thriving ministry is the fruit of a passionate focus on a deepening attachment to Jesus—if you’d like help exploring how to nurture a Jesus-centered ecosystem, reach out to connect with a Vibrant Faith Ministry Leadership Coach. Just CLICK HERE for more information. Coaching is an intentional process that moves you forward into the future you long for.  

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following JesusHe’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. In the Spring of 2024 his new book Editing Jesus: Confronting the Distorted Faith of the American Church will be published. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.



A Deeper Way to Lead Others Into Faith Maturity… Guide your people into depth relationally and experientially… A new curriculum by Rick Lawrence for both youth & adult ministries. Learn More Here




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